- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2016

VIERA, Fla. — Jonathan Papelbon slipped into a chair, his hair standing upward, windblown and wild, and explained he would sit there all day if need be to talk about last year or anything else. But, that this would be the only time.

So, he sat, relaxed during a makeshift press conference inside a small side room at Space Coast Stadium. Papelbon stretched out his legs and folded his muscular forearms for an almost 12-minute conversation about his massive public misstep last season when he choked National League MVP Bryce Harper in the dugout, prompting a suspension, an early close to his season and ongoing derision.

If there was one straight theme in Papelbon’s comments, it was that he realizes he screwed up. He said it last September following the incident, told teammates, including Harper, the same thing in the offseason, then pounded out the idea again Friday afternoon.

“When it all boils down to it, we’re all different and competitive in our own nature,” Papelbon said. “I think in my situation, it just spilled over to frustration and a bunch of different things. But, like I said, I didn’t feel like I got to say and apologize the way I wanted to apologize to the fans and everyone the way I wanted to last year, because I think the fans will see that I come here for one reason.

“I came here to bring a championship to a city that’s never had a championship, and that’s my No. 1 goal. That’s the No. 1 thing that I want to do this year. To be a part of an equation that has a team that’s great. To me, that’s the ultimate satisfaction. That’s my No. 1 goal, and I don’t think going into this year, nothing’s changed. None of that’s changed because of what happened with me and Bryce last year. I’m a firm believer that Bryce and my relationship will be better, will be greater because of what happened.”

Papelbon said he talked to several of the heavies within the clubhouse and organization in the offseason: pitcher Max Scherzer, left fielder Jayson Werth, new manager Dusty Baker, general manager Mike Rizzo, and, of course, Harper. He and Harper chatting was a one-time thing, Papelbon said. He added that he sent Harper a text message to wish him luck with the MVP voting. Papelbon made clear he thinks any ill will before, during or after the altercation was promptly resolved and eradicated now.

One thing Papelbon could not explain was why an 11-year veteran went after a team’s young star within the sight of television cameras and fans. A logical alternative would have been to hash it out with Harper afterward in the clubhouse, whether that was with his hands or words — the proverbial “behind closed doors.”

Instead, a microcosm of the Nationals’ season ensued when Papelbon first yelled at Harper from the dugout railing before reaching down to choke him.

“I think it was just spur of the moment,” Papelbon said. “I can’t go back and rewind the tape. I did what I did. Like I said, I wish I could take it back and go talk it out in a more peaceful way. But, I don’t know. I don’t know. It just happened and … I don’t know. Kind of like when you shake up a bottle and you open up the top, it explodes sometimes. I don’t know why. That’s a tough question, man.”

Entering the offseason, the Nationals appeared to have three choices: Retain both Papelbon and Drew Storen, deal one or jettison both. Storen was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for outfielder Ben Revere.

That move almost guaranteed Papelbon’s return. There may have been a question elsewhere if Papelbon would be back, but there was not one inside of his head.

“I didn’t really think about that a whole lot,” Papelbon said. “I didn’t.”

Rizzo said Friday that there was no consideration to simply dumping Papelbon for the incident, which earned him a four-game suspension from the team to go with a three-game suspension from the league for throwing at the Baltimore Orioles’ Manny Machado four days earlier — an action that prompted a public groan from Harper after the game. Harper felt he was in danger of whatever the retaliation that might come from the Orioles.

Papelbon was also suspended for seven games in 2014 following an obscene gesture to the crowd when he was still with the Philadelphia Phillies that preceded him being ejected by then making contact with umpire Joe West.

Despite the recent and repeated examples of uncontained emotion, Rizzo said he was not concerned about the possibility of a similar situation occurring again.

“To me, these things happen,” Rizzo said. “If you’ve been in this game long enough, they’ve happened. They happened to me as a player, they happened to me as a front office executive with other teams. They happen quite a bit behind closed doors and we feel that he’s no more prone to having this happen than anybody else.”

Papelbon was suspended without pay after grappling with Harper. So, he filed a grievance. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association are still working that out.

On the field last season, Papelbon was named to the NL all-star team. He finished with a 2.13 ERA and 24 saves. He blew just two saves. His ERA with the Nationals was 3.04.

The 35-year-old will be the Nationals closer this season, lording over a revamped bullpen in shirts with the sleeves cutoff. Six times, he has been named an all-star. He has one World Series title. He said he felt good physically when walking into the Viera facility for the first time, just a short time before talking about last season’s fight for the last time.

“One of the big things I want to do is come in this spring and put it behind me and show everyone that look, nothing’s bigger than the team,” Papelbon said. “No player’s bigger than the team. We’re all going to go out there and fight together, and fight hard together. Play hard, work together, and go try to win a championship. That’s all that matters.”


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